Northern Pike are a fiery sport fish with big brave hearts and ferocious appetites. They are probably one of the most enjoyable freshwater fish to go after with a fly rod because of their aggressive nature and speedy attacking of baits. Northerns are found all throughout the northern United States and Canada and are dominant predatory fish. Here In Alaska, northern pike will knock out populations of trout or grayling when introduced to a new body of water. In this article, I am sharing some general guidelines for Northern Pike with a fly rod. When I think fly fishing, northern pike is not the first species to come to mind, but boy are they fun!
Generally for northern pike, a 10-weight fly rod with a 3-4 inch reel spool, floating line, a 5-foot fluorocarbon with a 12-inch steel leader to protect from sharp teeth, and a 3-12 inch fly with flashy colors will be a good fly fishing setup.
Fly Fishing Gear
One of my first memories of fly fishing as a child was with my great-grandmother. In the eyes of a 5 year old her entire setup was foreign. It was a long skinny rod with funny looking string, an odd reel, and it casted differently; but she was always catching fish.
It looked harder, but as I sat and watched my bobber float downstream in the slow-moving river, I thought about how I had to regularly bait my hook after missing a fish. She could cast out with the same bait and always seemed to catch nice fish. A few years later my grandfather passed on and I began using his old Eagle Claw fly rod, with a small bright-colored popper for panfish on Lake Wallenpaupack in northeastern Pennsylvania. Sure, I had some serious tangles and had a hard time handling a rod that was almost three times taller than me, but I was fly fishing!
In my early twenties, I moved to the interior of Alaska. I live in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from the coast, so salmon are not in good shape when they get to us. Local salmon fishing has not been open in the last few years because of emergency season closures, so I started to fish regularly for northern pike.
Fly Fishing for Northern Pike
It never really occurred to me that fly fishing gear could be used until I took a trip with a few close friends to Minto Flats. Minto Flats is a very productive northern pike and sheefish location a few hours north of Fairbanks on the road, and about an hour boat ride from our launch location.
I was surprised to see one of my friends had a fly rod with him. I had figured that the weight of a leader would mess up casting and hadn’t even looked into it. I was there with my spinning rod watching as he and his son enjoyed the cadence of swirling and stripping lines with crazy topwater explosions as large pike engulfed the large flies they were throwing. An interesting note on pike in Alaska: where I fish, up to 90% of their diet is other Northerns. They are very aggressive and are one of the fastest accelerating freshwater fish in North America. I have caught 30-inch northerns that were recently scarred from an attack by another larger pike.
Northern Pike Fly Fishing Gear
If you’re going to hit the water for northern pike here are a few gear and technique tips that can set you in the right direction. These are not hard rules, but they will definitely be good guidelines for success.
If you are like me, you enjoy a long fight playing a fish as it continually comes in and then dives on a lightweight pole. An all-around good pole to use is a 10-weight, but 8- to 12-weight poles are used successfully every year.
I personally use a 9-weight rod for pretty much everything, northern pike included. It’s not underkill even for the water I fish where a 40+ inch pike is not uncommon. The biggest issue you need to be concerned about is not the fight, it’s being able to deal with and turn the mass of the fly and leader. Grab a fast-action rod for the best control over a large fly. Pike are not muskies, so there is no need to land them immediately. If you know how to keep the tip down at the right time and tire out a fish before trying to land it, a lighter rod will not be a problem.
Reel and Line
The reel is really just there to hold your line and backing. Northern pike are not known for crazy fights, but once you start catching some in the mid 3- inch range and into the 40s you will want a fair amount of line for long runs early on in the fight. I currently run a four-inch Redington reel with about 150 feet of floating line. I have never had to use all of the line but it’s there just in case.
The best leader I have seen used is a 40lb fluorocarbon with an additional steel leader right before the bait. I use a braided 12-inch steel leader rated for 60 lbs which is really overkill. You would be fine with a smaller 30-40 lb steel leader.
The fluorocarbon does not need to be long. Shorter is better up to about 5 feet with 6 feet of total leader length being the sweet spot. Otherwise, you will have a hard time getting the fly to turn and land well on your cast.
Pike are not picky. In my experience, if you’re in an area with lots of pike you could probably throw a stick and catch something. There are a few things that they really seem to like: color, size, and wake. Anything that is bright or flashy, looks like a full meal, makes a significant ripple, and has eye-catching action is going to be a great option.
Mouse imitations, whistlers, big streamers, minnow imitations, and big topwater poppers will get you into the action. I see fishermen using anything sized from three inches long to 15-inch mammoth homemade flies targeting absolute monsters.
Note: If you are fishing in an area with lots of northern pike, try not to drop more than 20 dollars on a premium musky fly. One or two big pike and the fly will likely be torn to shreds. A day of pike fishing can turn very expensive very fast. If you can, tie your own fly and save some money!
Getting the bait to the mark can be a challenge with a big six-inch fly. I normally use a standard over-the-head cast, but when swinging a big bait, switch to an oval cast. Keep the tip low while retrieving the fly and then bring the tip up on the swing and cast forward. This keeps the line in a big oval instead of a tight role. This puts more of the power from your cast into the fly so the inertia and momentum will carry the fly further.
Allow the fly to travel the full distance of the string while you smoothly change directions forward and back. The string pulls the fly to the mark, so in your cast use all the string you have out. This will help you prevent snapping the line as well.
Bringing in the Bait
Stripping the fly in works great. Do not fear bringing it in fast. Pike are way faster than a fly getting stripped across the water and the extra water disruption will make them go wild. When you get the bait to the edge of the boat let it sit for a bit or jig it. I have caught many pike right beside the boat after they wouldn’t commit on the way in.
Setting the Hook
Yes, setting the hook is slightly different too. Instead of an overhead set, keep the tip low and set the hook with a firm strip on the line. This does a few things: it keeps the bait in the water if you miss, but it also puts more direct pressure into the set allowing the hook to get firmly in place. It takes a lot of practice to keep the tip down and strip set, but it will pay off over time to learn this technique.
For northern pike grab a 10-weight rod, a good 40 lb. fluorocarbon leader with 12 inches of steel leader for 6 feet of total leader, use a big flashy fly, and keep the tip low when strip setting. You will be well on your way to a successful fishing adventure. Grab multiple flies to try out, after a few nice pike they may start to fall apart.
This post gives you a good place to start as you are fly fishing for northern pike. Go out there and have some fun.